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Federal Money Could Help Southwest Illinois Economy Recover From COVID — But Is It Too late?

Patrons dine at the Old Herald Brewery and Distillery in Collinsville on May 29. The restaurant can serve customers in-person in phase three of Illinois' reopening plan.  05 29 2020
Eric Schmid | St. Louis Public Radio
Patrons dine at the Old Herald Brewery and Distillery in Collinsville in May 2020.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio

After 15 years of working in the Granite City steel mill and then founding four small businesses, Brenda Whitaker worries her enterprises might not survive financial ruin from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitaker dipped into her retirement and savings to keep them going, but wonders if Illinois’ reopening and government assistance will be too late to matter.

“I hope I’m not the casualty,” Whitaker told a group of lawmakers at a hearing Thursday at the Buckminster Fuller dome on Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s campus.

Over the past 21 years, Whitaker opened the Garden Gate Tea Room, Novel Idea Bookstore and More, Downtown Diner and Boardgamery. Guests visit for the experiences, not takeout, she says, a model that didn’t work during the pandemic. Though Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted all capacity limits for restaurants in Illinois as of Friday, Whitaker still faces a painful labor shortage and a long financial recovery.

State Sen. Rachelle Crowe, D-Glen Carbon, says she hopes the state can use federal stimulus dollars to help businesses like Whitaker’s survive.

“We need to make sure we’re not leaving anything on the table,” said Crowe, vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Tourism and Hospitality.

What was the impact of COVID on business?

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the leisure and hospitality industry, business owners told lawmakers, and they’re going to need all the help they can get to recover, if they survived at all.

“2020 was to be our year here in southwestern Illinois,” said Cory Jobe, CEO of the Alton-based Great Rivers and Routes Tourism Bureau.

Visitors from around the world were expected for events, conventions and vacations in high numbers. Instead, Illinois lost half of its tourism dollars compared to 2019, Jobe said. The leisure and hospitality sector lost 216,500 jobs from January 2020 to 2021, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The industry gained back nearly 82,000 of those from January to April this year, the agency’s data showed, but the economy in southwestern Illinois still struggles.

“This region has thousands of unfilled jobs,” said Ronda Sauget, CEO of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, an economic development organization.

Whitaker said some of her Granite City shops were only open for limited hours because workers don’t want to come back to minimum wage jobs when unemployment benefits remain in place. But there are other reasons people might not be able to or willing to accept low wages. State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said she had heard from parents who are struggling to afford child care, and Crowe said employees don’t need just any job, but one that fits their skillset.

Crowe said she hopes Illinois can use federal dollars to address all those problems.

The U.S. Department of Treasury allocated $8.1 billion to Illinois after Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year. The state can use the money to support small businesses as well as other economic recovery efforts.

Cities will also see some federal money, according to the treasury, but it could be awhile before the cash appears. The treasury began distributing half payments to local governments in May, according to a news release from the department, but the other half won’t be available for another year.

The federal government allocated recovery dollars to the following metro-east cities:

  • Alton: $21,639,201
  • Belleville: $15,792,501
  • East St. Louis: $36,379,844

Kathy Kaiser, communications director for the city of Belleville, said city officials have been reviewing the rules about how the federal funding can and cannot be used and a final decision has not been made on how the money would be spent.
Southwestern Illinois counties are also eligible for money:

  • St. Clair: $50,440,961
  • Madison: $51,078,063
  • Bond: $3,190,558
  • Calhoun: $920,495
  • Clinton: $7,295,978
  • Greene: $2,519,076
  • Jersey: $4,229,150
  • Monroe: $6,727,831
  • Randolph: $6,173,281
  • Washington: $2,697,387

What help is available for businesses now?

Crowe said help is available while Illinois and local governments decide how to use federal stimulus money. Business owners may contact their local legislators for guidance, but here is a list of grants and programs:

  • Back to Business grants: State lawmakers recently approved a $1.5 billion economic recovery package that included $300 million in grants for small businesses. More information on those grants will be available beginning July 1, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at a recent news conference.
  • COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan: Small business owners may qualify for this low-interest loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
  • Shuttered Venue Operators Grant: Venues such as movie theaters, performing arts and museum operators may apply for these U.S. Small Business Administration grants.
  • Small Business Administration Debt Relief: This automatic benefit for existing borrowers allowed the SBA to pay six months of principal, interest and fees owed.
  • Recovery Awareness Campaign for Illinois Small Businesses: The federal government awarded $1 million to the Illinois visitors and tourism bureau, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, announced Friday. The project will market small businesses statewide in an effort to bring tourists back.

Kelsey Landis is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Reporter Mike Koziatek contributed to this report.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.